Angst or AWE? 50 Power Tools for Stress-free Days

Slogging through the mire during this difficult pandemic? Discover 50 brain based ways to cope better than you expect! Come back daily for another tool, see how I used it to reboot my day, and share your attempts. This blog includes the first 10 anxiety-buster tools and will be followed by 4 additional blogs with the remaining 40 tools. The blog is intended to point out typical entry places for anxiety to creep into our emotions, as well as brain based helps for stress-free living.

COFFEE CONSIDERATION 1 – with another power tool to cope in tough times from neural and cognitive sciences: If we bottleneck the brain we risk being imprisoned in life’s mire. The opposite is also true. Mindfully consider a specific blessing and we top up joy again in our mental storehouse. When we can say we are blessed, and mean it, we are fully engaged in a magical journey, one without anxiety. Today I plan to walk alone to focus on and restore treasured memories of a few specific blessings in my life at this moment. You?

Suggestion 1: Walk in the woods and think about a treasured blessing

Reflection after tool 1 use: This tool proved harder to use than expected, so I feel glad to have hung in. It started strong, and I felt blessed about many of my provisions and people I feel close to. However, there were times when I became distracted and drifted back to vivid memories about events that make me sad. Perhaps my best growth was awareness of both my blessings and my tendency to look past these and fret about a cup half full. Awareness turned my focus back to the moment, and I regained a sense of blessing each time that happened. Let us know what you think about the brains’ requirement for observable action in order to change its proclivities for more fun and less fear.

COFFEE CONSIDERATION 2 – with another power tool to cope in tough times from neural and cognitive sciences: The brain stores many anxiety-building triggers and each time life trips up on these, we will likely suffer from worries that can feel as if the trauma were newly experienced. Over time, our intuitive or intrapersonal intelligence gets defined by stressful lies interjected into our day, in weeds that prevent awesome talents and fun adventures our brains can offer us.

Suggestion 2: Become our own best therapist by tricking our brains

We cannot tackle all our stored anxiety triggers at once, but we can break one key link. Reminded that our brains require us to act before they rewire and reboot for more of the same, I plan to go after a tough stressor today with an overcoming action a therapist might offer! Check back tomorrow to see my follow-up suggestion within the day 3 brain tool!

Reflection after tool 2 use: When we imagine we will suggesting a stress-busting strategy as advice to a person we love, we trick our brains. We also see our own anxiety problem through a different filter in our role as strategist for a person we care about. In this way we are able to see in new ways, and mentally equipped to try a doable strategy as if it came to us from a gifted therapist. What lowered anxiety visibly for you when you tried tool 2 above?

COFFEE CONSIDERATION 3 – with another power tool to cope in tough times from neural and cognitive sciences: If the memory we raised (see tool illustrated below) is firmly planted in our mind over time, we will likely have to burn it on a few intrusions before it stops pestering us with anxiety. Each time we burn a sad experience, for example, we also prepare mental real estate to replace its presence with a healthy emotion displayed on our mental screen.

Suggestion 3: In basal ganglia storehouse stockpile a finer experience

With the action suggested in this too, we literally lay down new neural connections toward a stress-free  possibility to replace (or at least diminish) the sad memory that leaves us feeling inadequate or lesser than. We open the door to feeling cherished and loved as a person worth value and if we hold grace as vital, we see ourselves as a person loved unconditionally, in spite of weakness and mistakes we’ve displayed in past. Just as we are, we find new openings for courage and calm, after we rid our memory screens from distractions that stress and perpetuate anxiety. We lower our toxic cortisol chemicals that fuel despair, and raise our serotonin chemicals in ways that jettison our brains to readjust for less sadness fueled and more frequent defaults to hope stored in our basal ganglia.

Reflection after tool 3 use: Each time that specific memory returns I now see it burn in fire again, rather than burn my emotional health. Each time I see a fire’s flame, I’m excited to associate less anxiety now and more freedom to leap forward and find calm and contentment in many different situations. As we visualize a blank screen projected at the back of our minds, we set up our brain for a stress-free and lighter day rather than a day where we slog through the mire with a sad memory on our backs.

Perhaps today’s tool works well to amp up an anxiety-free day, without expectations. Perhaps that fire helps us to let a broken relationship go!

No longer will we be anxious to be understood, when we begin to understand that state of calm more. As Khalil Gibrand pointed out: If you love somebody, let them go.  If they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.

Letting go leaves us with anxiety-free expectations on a regular basis. Check back tomorrow for another sizzling brain based tool that failed few and freed many during my lifetime of international brain conferences.

One vital key here is to use each tool actively and try out its strength. Then determine if each tool adds clear evidence of more consistent calm to your brain. While these tools and their effectiveness differs, what remains the same is our brain’s requirement for action as its pathway to improve. Unless we act differently to make change possible, our brains fail to reshuffle and add new neuron connections toward a stress-free day. These suggested tasks all strike at anxiety and all relate to specific brain facts that holds ability to increase calm and decrease mental chaos. Overtime, expect to see a dynamic pattern of calm as our basal ganglia stores overcoming actions we do with tools listed here.

COFFEE CONSIDERATION 4 – with another power tool to cope in tough times from neural and cognitive sciences: Forgiveness literally alters a brain’s wiring with new neuron pathways into emotional well-being. Two months after my mother died of cancer, I found myself at 14 alone on Barrington Street in Halifax in April. I watched six young siblings crumble around me and felt myself falling too under the strain as we trudged together toward dusk that hovered over the city center. During years of struggle and homelessness, fear and unforgiveness etched haunting graffiti images across screens along the back of my mind. Along with anxiety, came a nagging inability to let go of disappointments and memories of domestic violence.

Suggestion 4: Forgive to change and improve our brain’s chemistry

To forgive is not to change others, but to change ourselves to become the person we’d like others to see in us. We now know a great deal more about our brain’s ability to change, which is called plasticity, and which requires action on our part. Forgiveness reboots our brains to help us shift focus and move ahead without blame or a need to explain our position to those who criticize.  When we forgive we build new neuron connections to replace angst with acceptance. We learn to accept personal failures and apologize to others more readily. Our brains begin to present calm confidence in difficult situations. Have you been there?

Anxiety adds to mental hostility and stress. When we yield to worry, we struggle against alone times rather than cherish reflective moments in those intrapersonal opportunities.  We fret in ways that fuel more toxic cortisol that increases stress and literally shrinks our brain. Holding onto hurts, triggers dangerous mental chemicals that rob our courage to embrace kindness. It takes repeated forgiveness to show genuine care for others, especially those who disagree or disapprove of us.

Research shows even more dangerous effects of stress caused by unforgiveness.

In everyday life, forgiveness measures our health and well-being, in spite of injustices and disappointments. To forgive a person who judges or criticizes us not only unleashes a new chemical and electrical circuitry for letting go. It moves us from victims to victors. At first we limp past hurdles of anger or grief, and eventually we begin to well up compassion and understanding for those we forgive.

Reflection after tool 4 use:  Anxiety wears many coats and unforgiveness is one of these. Our 4th brain based anxiety-free tool supports an open mind and helps us sustain forgiveness. I’m talking about pardon that doesn’t depend on another person feeling regret or sharing in our hurt. The person we forgive today does not need to be present, nor does that person need to be alive. I simply imagine the person sitting across from me, and I forgive with a determination to treat that person as if they had not injured me. It takes time, and it works wonders as it frees us to meet that person without anxiety’s jitters! Every time those jitters return, forgive again, and eventually we feel nothing but care when we think of that person.

Glad to reflect today on the fact that we can enjoy more serotonin to admit our mistakes quicker and treat others as if we walked in their shoes when conflicts arise. Wonderful to remember how our brain responds with a warmth of compassion, care and curiosity – as forgiveness magically reconnects us to people we cherish. What’s not to love about a day without pesky worry and anxiety that leaves us rattled?

Carefree, close friendships and trusted relationships tend to follow when we prepare mentally for more calm. No wonder we experience less disappointment. Holidays can be the best time to check our forgiving quotient. Uneasy feelings? Have you noticed that we often come face to face with those we need to forgive at reunions?

What if we learn to laugh more from a child?

COFFEE CONSIDERATION 5–  Fun and laughter are to a stress free-brain what worry and venting are to its anxious opposite. Yet research shows that children laugh 300 to 400 times a day, compared to 17 times that adults laugh. Consider a person you admire who laughs easily and often. We likely have at least one person in our circle who seems laid back, and silly in ways that support others who face tough times by adding a lighter touch. This person likely laughs at self easily and looks for humor in the little things we may miss or rush past.  Jump onto that person’s orbit today or whenever possible, and we begin to lighten up our personal game. It’s a surefire way to sidestep any generalized despair where it seems impossible to articulate what makes us restless. How so?

Simply connect with a fun-lover on a regular basis and our brain will do the rest. Our minds come with ready-made mirror neurons that literally copy and paste other people’s personality traits into our own. See why we need to avoid cynics and seek out those who inspire fun, laughter and silly adventures? No surprise that fun and a good belly laugh offer tools to build less anxiety and more zest for living our best lives  – even in difficult settings. What may surprise us, is that we can enjoy more fun and humor with others while at the same time we lower anxious moments and gain back time we typically spend worrying.

Reflection after tool 5 use:  Our 5th brain based anxiety-free tool calls for action that sets in motion how we spend regular time with those who value laughter, fun and a carefree approach to solve problems with silly solutions that work well.  Laugh together like three year olds, and we stay active, curious and ready to be surprised by joy from others. Hearty laughter often leaves us assured all is well with our soul.  We may even begin to understand how another person we admire faces let-downs or disappointments with fewer knots or bumps of stress and frustration along the way.

COFFEE CONSIDERATION 6 – with another power tool to cope in tough times from neural and cognitive sciences: More than 40 million Americans live with some serious form of an anxiety disorder.  Loss often leads to panic, worry or fear and unless we give ourselves an exit strategy we can spend an entire lifetime trying to repair and recover from loss of friends, family, finances, freedom or failed expectations.   

Working memory is our brain’s tool shed to awe and replace angst

Emotional reactions to loss such as panic attacks, tempt us to reach for fast food, overuse alcohol, withdraw into self-preoccupation or lash out in blame. With every unhealthy reaction we can step dangerously closer to a default into anxiety as a way to cope with our specific loss.

Perhaps most perilous is the fact that we stockpile every emotional reaction in our brain’s amygdala. These stored emotional reactions begin to exacerbate anxious responses at every future memory or mention of this loss or any similar loss.

Sketch a new image with help from our brain’s working memory and we can replace an anxiety-ridden loss.  We will also store that new iconic replacement in the seat of our emotions, our amygdala, for use going forward. For example, my closest friend of over 26 years died unexpectedly in a tragic fall down my front stairs. Every glance at these stairs in my beloved home left me fearful and I could barely bring myself to walk down the dreaded stairway, without tears of Robyn’s last day in my life. Then after a few days of avoiding the stairs I exchanged the death trap image, for another visual I could live beyond grief with, as Robyn would have wanted. A person of great faith, Robyn knew that heaven was her final resting home, so as I remembered here I suddenly saw my home as her stairway to heaven. Amazing that new image of heaven’s stairway lowered anxiety, enabled me to freely walk up and down all levels of my home again, and helped me to begin to heal from the horrific loss suffered with my dear friend’s departure.

If we consistently see loss of friends, family or failed finances in the CONVID-19 pandemic, we could well be headed into an anxiety disorder without a recovery plan. In contrast, if we name a worrisome image we then can create a counterpart visual that will restore hope through a healthy filter, we free up mental energy to move forward. The first question to ask is: What image is stockpiled in our amygdala that still adds fear, brings tears, or drains our emotions with loss?

Reflection after tool 6 use:  I feared the coronavirus pandemic at the start and especially worried that I’d be trapped far too long in a tiny apartment, alone and without people I care about nearby. My dreaded image of isolation lasted for the entire first week. Recently this anxiety-busting tool helped me to re-frame this pandemic isolation into an icon that helps me forward. I filled my days with learning piano, texting two treasured grandchildren daily, reading and expressing more gratitude for the gift of family and friends I’ll see again after our isolation ends. Not a perfect image, but one I could live with and one that plucks out despair that seeped into mental filters in that initial week. I reversed a cup half-empty where anxiety created chaos after we were required to shelter at home alone. Rather than sit home and worry I found myself planning adventurous walks, and dreaming again about golf and deep discussions with good friends.

During a walk along our favorite creek, or sitting under a shaded tree, we are better equipped to toss a troubling version of our future and add a new filter that shows anxiety-free adventures we will plan now and enjoy in time.

COFFEE CONSIDERATION 7: We crave autonomy on one hand, and slip into unhealthy dependence and stress on the other. Anxiety spikes if we help a less fortunate neighbor, and that neighbor leans too hard, expecting more than we can give. Seniors panic if adult children attempt to parent or push them into undesired places. If bureaucratic institutions treat us like needy children, or disregard our autonomy, we fret and grow increasingly frustrated.

Autonomy comes from the Greek root “auto” meaning “self, and “nomos” which means “custom” or “law.” It refers to our right to self-govern or self-rule. It helps us to understand anxiety that increases when we lose our ability to make choices. It defines healthy decisions we make daily without interference from any overly authoritarian figure. It describes the opposite of what a senior said recently about his independent living setting, “They treat me like a toddler here!”

We crave freedom and yet fear causes us to yield our independence

Few fail to escape at times, the angst that lies between anxiety and personal freedom. Parents worry when grandparents take too many liberties that go against their parental wishes. Children grow anxious with too many rigid demands from parents, and too little consideration of their own freedom. Autonomy is essential to mental health because we are created with freewill. We grow emotionally stronger under self-directing freedom and we especially prosper mentally under moral independence and personal autonomy.

Not that autonomy infers the kind of independence that avoids other’s views, lacks care for diverse insights, or rebels against any reasonable authority. Instead, it’s a deeply felt endorsement for our creative gift of freewill, as a free commitment to choose our own actions, and a commitment to value and learn from other people’s choices.

Sure, autonomy takes a new skill for those neighbors who try to yield their freedom over to us by not letting go and not moving on, after we step in for a time to help them out. At its zenith, healthy independence leads to deeper reflection in ways that select and evaluate thoughtful actions. At its worst the lack of autonomy prevents our ability to be free, relaxed and deeply engaged with others we value. Autonomy helps us to avoid impulse actions that tend to arise when we feel pressure externally or suffer internal compulsions from a lack of opportunity to act freely.

Anxiety follows when we attempt to block independence of our own or others’ thoughts and actions. When we lose an ability to act on personal values or interests, we panic. In contrast, when we remain autonomous we also retain a sense of self-worth and self-respect. Healthy autonomy comes from anxiety-free living with a healthy understanding of what matters most to us. When we feel free to make decisions, we feel more peaceful, in spite of mistakes we make along the way. We cherish independence and value an ability to get by on our own, without too much help restrictive help from others. We hire experts to guide good choices, we build trust with family and friends by honoring their choices and respecting boundaries. We build autonomy and shun dependency that leads to non-autonomy.

Anxiety rises when autonomy is blocked so that people at any age fear they have no choices left. Whenever we yield over our independence, or lose the ability to remain the source of our own actions we risk taking on stress like iron filings to a magnet. Autonomy-related anxiety is not restricted to personal freedom but it also extends to minority groups who crave greater political freedom, sovereignty, and self-determination.

Reflection after tool 7 use: Feeling anxious or pressured to act against our desires and goals?

This pandemic crisis, as well as mounting research shows how anxiety spikes when autonomy gets blocked, we feel bullied or personal barriers are breached. Stress comes with autonomy abuse, much like iron filings to a magnet.

How could we express the freedom we need in a way that also expresses love and respect we hold for others around us. To find and act autonomously on this brain based tool is to free up our frontal cortex, where our finest decisions are made, and to store emotional health in our amygdala so we can express deep care we hold for others’ autonomy, regardless of their age or status.

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